2022 Innovator: DS Graphics/Universal Wilde Turns Print Into Digital Engagement Experience
(Editor's note: In today’s printing industry, the concept of innovation is wide in definition, but rather narrow in its goal. Leading companies have grasped many tools to define themselves, increase profitability, and differentiate. They utilize new technologies, systems integration, an expanded product mix, exemplary customer service, and more.
The company profiled below — among the 2022 class of six Printing Impressions’ Innovators of the Year — was nominated by a group of printing industry experts and consultants who identified the business as notable. The summary that follows shares what makes it innovative, interesting, and exceptional.)
If there is one essential takeaway from DS Graphics/Universal Wilde’s approach to innovation, it is that technology — which gets so much attention in the printing industry — is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. Asked how he defines innovation, Chris Wells, executive VP, quotes his father, who said, “Innovation means relating the normally unrelated.” For the company, he says, that means developing value-boosting connections between print and online engagement.
While DS Graphics/Universal Wilde has equipped itself with a wide array of machines, purchased with a brand-agnostic approach, the true value the Lowell, Massachusetts-based company brings is what is done with these machines to expand the possibilities of what it means to serve a customer. This includes the creation of online customer portals to ease ordering and the templatization of common jobs to eliminate unnecessary touches. “We want to build a better path for the customer,” Wells says.
Industry consultant Barbara Pellow, who nominated DS Graphics/Universal Wilde as a 2022 Innovator of the Year, says, “DS Graphics/Universal Wilde has been at the forefront of understanding and developing customer solutions that marry the print and digital worlds. They continually look at how print can drive clients to an immersive customer experience, and look for ways to integrate print with digital response mechanisms,” she adds. “This is essential as we look at Gen Z and how to reach the consumer.”
Defining the Difference
From the outside, the company looks like many commercial printing companies: a mix of offset and digital technologies; some auxiliary offerings — wide-format and promotional products, for instance — to offer broader packages to its customers; envelopes converted in-house; and a laser focus on providing direct mail and marketing communications. But the company, and its approach, goes beyond the norm. “We focus on efficiency and effectiveness to turn print into a digital engagement experience for customers,” Wells points out. The company’s key innovation is in striving to maximize the value print can deliver.
One recent DS Graphics/Universal Wilde innovation Wells is most proud of is its move toward integration with digital voice assist — essentially creating a link between printed direct mail and digital services such as Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. “This innovation will be very impactful,” Wells says, “but it’s an idea that requires careful setup.” He says this approach to digital conversion, where the direct-mail recipient can say, for instance, “Alexa, tell me about USAID,” or “Siri, donate to UWGSL,” can help motivate those more comfortable in the digital space. This, in turn, could integrate directly with payment mechanisms already established with, for instance, Amazon Prime or Google Pay.
In some cases, according to Wells, a direct mail piece sent in an envelope could remain unopened, as the recipient may respond to a call to action printed on the envelope itself. Part of the innovative thinking here is that the true goal is not in beautiful print or getting people to open the piece. It is about effective engagement, efficiently achieved.
Digital printing technologies factor strongly into the company’s innovative strategies, including a move toward personalization, which can deliver more deeply targeted, more deeply effective printed campaigns. “The best personalization,” Wells believes, “is when you don’t know it’s personalized.” Iconoclastically, he adds, “We want people to print less.” This means greater value per piece.
Asked why customers would select DS Graphics/Universal Wilde from the long list of direct mail/marketing communications producers, he uses the metaphor of a hotel swimming pool: “Many people look for it when they’re selecting a hotel, and book because it has one, but very few use it. Similarly, very few of our customers have utilized our innovative ways to use print, but they know we can take them to the next level.
“We know where marketing is going, and we can help them get there,” Wells adds.
The Path Forward
Like bicycling, where the rider focuses eyes on where they’re going, not where they are, Wells considers what’s ahead for the company, and the changes in terrain that may affect it. He anticipates a scaling down of the catalog and magazine space, where smaller, more personalized print pieces will drive the recipient toward digital content, including augmented reality. Wells believes marketing collateral will change as well, with more of it going to digital spaces. “People no longer want to come home from a trade show with a bag of stuff,” he says.
Looking toward the future of print communication, Wells is convinced that the idea of decentralization, as it relates to Web 3.0, will bring major behavioral changes in society. He believes people will have much more control over how they choose to be communicated with and what the experience looks like — noting that print is but one channel amid a spectrum of channels. “This is how I want it,” Wells says, speaking as a future recipient, “so you need to deliver it to me that way.”
Further, he thinks buying habits will change, driven by Generations Z and Alpha’s increased involvement in digital spaces. This includes, for instance, mixed-mode augmented reality, NFTs to build customer connection, and “metaverse thinking.”
To gain a sense of what the future may hold, Wells looks to a younger generation: “I get a lot of insight through my own kids. I look at what they’re doing, and it’s been a huge inspiration.”
To keep the company on an innovative path, Wells says he works to learn from other industries and looks at marketing strategies worldwide. Peer groups, trade shows, and being a “voracious reader” all contribute to his future-facing approach — striving on behalf of DS Graphics/Universal Wilde for what his father would call “relating the normally unrelated.”